Using Sound to Heal

Can Focused Ultrasound Revolutionize Medicine?

Imagine not being able to write a letter to your children, or hold a cup of coffee steady. What if you couldn’t control the movement of your head or the shakiness of your voice?

For the 5-10 million Americans living with essential tremors, these are everyday realities. Now a groundbreaking treatment pioneered at UVA has been approved by the FDA to treat essential tremors that don’t respond to medications.

Focused ultrasound concentrates high-intensity soundwaves to generate heat. Guided by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), doctors can target the sound waves with accuracy to ablate, or burn away, the area that causes the tremors without damaging nearby tissue.

The procedure requires no incisions, no anesthesia, and no hospital stays. The results are immediate.

“We can actually monitor the tremor and follow its suppression as the procedure progresses,” explains neurosurgeon Jeffrey Elias, lead investigator. “Afterwards, we have restored or greatly improved their ability to perform everyday tasks.”

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine offered an in-depth assessment of the therapy. The journal not only determined that the procedure was safe and effective, they found that it offered a lasting benefit, reducing shaking for trial participants throughout the 12-month study period.

Now UVA is working to make the procedure eligible for patients as soon as possible, but this milestone is just the beginning.

“We hope to manage Parkinson’s disease and the symptoms of other movement disorders with focused ultrasound,” Elias says. “It’s a simple, elegant solution for complex neurological problems. Although we are not curing the disease, we hope our work will improve the quality of life for patients facing serious conditions.”

At UVA Cancer Center, Dr. David Brenin and his team are running the only clinical trial in the nation using the procedure to treat benign tumors in the breast. In early stages, the technology shows promise, and a national trial will test its potential to treat malignant tumors as well. Dr. Timothy Showalter is also testing focused ultrasound’s effectiveness in targeting low-risk, localized prostate cancer with fewer side effects than standard treatment.

Extraordinary Collaboration Leads to Success

None of this would have been possible without a robust partnership between UVA Health System, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the Focused Ultrasound Foundation, which brought the research to Charlottesville. Private support from benefactors and friends helped speed clinical trials.

“We have reached a critical milestone in focused ultrasound's evolution,” says Dr. Neal F. Kassell, chair of the Focused Ultrasound Foundation. “FDA approval affirms the technology’s ability to safely and accurately treat the brain through the intact skull in an awake patient. The Foundation has long focused on treating brain disorders. If you can achieve success in the brain, it is not difficult to imagine treating targets in other organs."